2015 IDEA Group Fitness Trend Watch

Industry experts share insider information about programs, equipment and trends that are breaking the mold and shaping the future of group exercise.

By Ideafit Authors
Jun 17, 2015

Group fitness arouses nostalgia and feels like “home” for many
exercisers, both avid and novice. As the backbone of the fitness
industry, it has ebbed and flowed over the past three decades (and
counting). People love exercising to music and sharing endorphins. In
fact, fitness facility members are thriving on creative class options,
demanding more varied opportunities and driving the industry forward.
What can you, as a group fitness professional, do to meet the needs of a
growing market? What programs, equipment and trends are making people of
all ages and abilities jump, stretch, lift and smile?

We interviewed and surveyed 15 high-profile group fitness experts who
have vast insider knowledge of programming, budgets, marketing,
equipment, creative class design, education, skill sets, music and more
to find out where the industry “hot spots” are right now. Read on to
find out how their insights will support and strengthen your class
experiences.

Top Group Fitness Programs

Group fitness programming—which includes class design, instruction and
sound exercise science—is the “magic sauce” for any thriving health
club. According to our informal survey, the average membership
demographic is approximately 25–60 years old, with some locational
variances. Program directors reported that they schedule an average of
65 classes per week. Attendance varies widely based on season, attrition
rates and other factors.

While lineups and schedules differ depending on locale and demographics,
we found some common threads in program and class popularity, detailed
below (in alphabetical order, not in order of popularity).

  • Core-themed classes. Programs that focus on strengthening
    the core continue to be a big draw, thanks to the fitness industry’s
    education on this topic over the past decade in particular. The rise of
    Pilates, which shares the message of injury prevention through
    strengthening the powerhouse, has also fueled this growth. Fitness pros
    have learned a lot about connections and interactions among core
    muscles, fascial lines and movement, and the general population is
    benefiting from this knowledge.

    Amy Nestor, educational ambassador for EMPOWER! Fitness Conferences, has
    noticed that Pilates principles have penetrated other formats, and
    people are becoming more aware of core stabilization and “moving with
    core control in every modality.” Linda Webster, owner of Guru Fitness®
    LLC, says that core-focused classes help participants “light up, connect
    to the variety of movement and realize that the core is much more than
    ‘ab work.’”

  • High-intensity interval training. Members are still
    demanding intensity-oriented options, whether it’s Tabata, boot camp,
    circuit training or strict high-intensity interval training. These
    classes are popular partly because of claims they offer better metabolic
    conditioning and fat loss and partly because they take less time to
    complete than traditional classes. Abbie Appel, group fitness manager
    for Equinox, says HIIT is “hugely popular,” and cites “positive
    physiological results, including improved fitness level at every level .
    . . and the fast changes in body composition” as contributing factors.

    Fred Hoffman, MEd, owner of Fitness Resources Consulting Services,
    agrees that HIIT is popular but says it’s not for everyone. “I feel that
    the people who like HIIT and have embraced it generally [already] like
    to work out, and work out hard. It’s the ‘preaching to the choir’
    phenomenon. But in my opinion, this type of training is most likely not
    appealing to the majority of the population who are not working out and
    who have difficulty even getting started. If people don’t like to work
    out, a high-intensity training program or class is not going to be
    attractive to them. With time, that could change, but first fitness
    professionals have to help get these people started and provide them the
    means to enjoy fitness and stay motivated. HIIT may not be the right
    approach to take; however, it can be adapted for different populations.”

  • Indoor cycling. Indoor cycling continues to be a popular
    option among fitness facility members, and experts point to many reasons
    for its sustained position in the spotlight. “I think people see it as
    great motivation, and they can still have some control over their
    workout,” says Webster. Kimberly Spreen-Glick, senior director of group
    fitness, yoga and indoor cycling for Life Time Fitness—The Healthy Way
    of Life Companysm, attributes indoor cycling’s endurance in part to
    specialty studios that reignited an interest. “Indoor cycling received a
    breath of fresh air with the opening of all the boutiques, and we love
    it,” she says. Grace DeSimone, national group fitness director for
    Optum, says she believes members enjoy indoor cycling because the bikes
    are “easy to use, offer a great workout and require a small learning
    curve.”

  • Strength training–specific classes. Sustained
    cardio classes have been getting a bit of a bad rap from fitness
    professionals who promote “pure” metabolic exercise. Strength training
    classes have benefited from the fallout. This is in stark contrast to
    10–15 years ago, when instructors had to strongly encourage attendees to
    get the recommended dose of resistance training each week.

    The strength training category includes much more than 
programs that
    incorporate the standby dumbbells. Participants are also using
    kettlebells, sandbags/sand bells, barbells, suspension exercise systems
    and, of course, body weight. “I believe kettlebell training has become
    more popular due to the recent media buzz, integration of kettlebells
    into circuit training programs and CrossFit®-type workouts,” says
    celebrity trainer Alex Isaly. He goes on to note that a barbell class is
    also popular at his facility. “[Participants] like it because it’s a
    pure strength training class,” he says. “It’s great to integrate into
    their regimens because most classes are heavily cardio focused.”

  • Yoga and barre. The programs and classes mentioned above
    represent a “yang”—or more outward, assertive—approach to fitness, while
    yoga and barre represent a more “yin,” or inward, approach. Isaly says
    he’s seen a “huge increase in member participation in mind-body
    classes,” which include yoga. “I believe more people are seeing the
    benefits of these types of classes from increased strength, flexibility
    and recovery,” he says.

    “Yoga has become a staple on all group fitness schedules,” says Amy
    Dixon, national group fitness creative director for Equinox.
    Spreen-Glick echoes this thought: “Yoga is big for us,” she says. “You
    see many members walking around with yoga mats at our clubs all day.”

    Shannon Fable, director of exercise programming for Anytime Fitness
    Corporate, says participants enjoy barre because “it’s new and different
    and employs unique movements. It’s also a natural extension of the
    mind-body, yoga and Pilates movements. Also, a lot of people did ballet
    when they were young, so much of what happens in a typical barre class
    is familiar.”

For additional insights into what classes and programs are popular
around the country, see the sidebar “11 Growth Points: Past 3 Years.”

Group Fitness Studio Equipment: 
Too Much of a Good Thing?

It’s perhaps not surprising that respondents’ lists of top equipment
choices fall in line with popular programs and classes. Indoor cycles,
barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, suspension exercise systems and a
variety of smaller pieces of equipment, such as medicine balls and
resistance bands, all made a hearty appearance on these lists. The
popularity of functional training has also created a demand for tools
that support sports conditioning, warding patterns and muliplanar
movement. Several respondents mentioned the ViPR™ as a favorite for many
members, as well as battle ropes and sand bells.

Donna Cyrus, senior vice president of programming at Crunch Fitness,
says she is seeing a trend away from using larger pieces of equipment.
“Small pieces of equipment that are reasonably priced are the wave of
the future,” she says. Isaly notes that his clients love having options,
both large and small. Webster sees the issue as being less about the type
of equipment and more about the instructor’s level of knowledge.
“Instructors seem to be looking for new exercises [to do] with old
equipment they already have,” she says. “Instead, they should spend time
educating [themselves] on biomechanics and how to best utilize body
position [with] equipment in order to be effective.”

Lashaun Dale, vice president of group X at 24 Hour Fitness®, appreciates
dumbbells, barbells, sand bells and yoga props for their return on
investment and their versatility, saying she can leverage them for use
in “four or more programs.” “ROI can be measured in so many
ways—financial requirements, time investment, member engagement, team
member engagement, promotional positioning, partnerships, and strategic
positioning for future programs,” says Dale. “With each programming
consideration it’s critical to evaluate the full matrix, deliberate on
the story of the program and spend time understanding how the new class
adds value and meaning to the total [group exercise] program offering
and, ultimately, to the member and team member experience and the
company overall.”

DeSimone says many participants enjoy suspension exercise (TRX®, etc.)
because it’s “fun, versatile and expeditious.” Many other experts
mentioned scalability and results-oriented simplicity as factors in this
program’s popularity.

What’s missing from the group exercise studio inventory? Not much,
according to our respondents, some of whom cited budgeting constraints
that sometimes prevent them from creating the kind of comprehensive
programming they’d prefer to offer members. “I see a lot of great new
equipment ideas; but the truth is that for any new equipment to be
considered, it would need to take the place of something we already have
in our studios—there’s just too much stuff in there,” says Spreen-Glick.
However, Dixon does have something special on her wish list that she
thinks might tackle the poor posture instructors say is rampant among
attendees. “I think there’s a lack of pulling-type exercises that you
can do in a class,” she says. “I’d like to see more equipment that will
allow for these types of exercises [and] that won’t take up that much
space.”

Forecasting, Challenges, Solutions

For group fitness to continue its evolution as a mainstay in the hearts
and minds of participants, it’s important to look at where the industry
is and what it can do as a collective force to address ongoing
challenges.

“Group fitness still remains an important aspect of the life of health
clubs and fitness centers, but its form is changing,” says Hoffman, who
cites CrossFit, outdoor activities such as boot camps, virtual offerings
and big players in the “prechoreographed sector” as factors that impact
creative growth.

Spreen-Glick thinks one thing that is missing is a more personal
connection. “Instructors [need to learn] how to create an experience
versus just lead a workout,” she says. “Too many instructors are coming
in new to the industry and just memorizing a format and teaching it.
They miss the opportunity to make emotional connections, which is what
really changes our students’ lives.”

What else does the industry need to do in order to stay 
relevant?

Revamp instructor education and professionalism. Almost every
expert stated lack of education and/or professionalism as a problem.
Fable adds lack of industry standards and a strong career path to the
mix. “[We need to] redefine what group fitness is and change the face
[of it] ,” she says. “It’s considered a ‘consolation’ prize for many,
and sold as such; therefore, less emphasis is put on this cost center.
With less money to hire good leaders (not just managers) and less money
to retain quality instructors, we simply aren’t attracting the right
people to this profession.”

Appel says she has a hard time “finding talented instructors [who have]
no attitude. Specifically, we struggle with finding main-studio (group
strength, cardio) and cycling instructors. Years ago, main-studio and
cycle instructors were everywhere, and everyone wanted to teach those
formats. Today, we rarely find a good indoor cycling instructor who can
motivate and coach.”

“There aren’t enough new instructors coming into the industry,” says
Krista Popowych, 2014 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year. “And there’s
a lack of versatility and skill [among] the ones who do come. They are
no longer getting the training they need. The basics are not there
(musicality, phrasing, how to instruct). Many new instructors only want
to teach cycling and boot camp. And they aren’t willing to put the time
in (for free) to get better.”

“The biggest issue is a lack of education and training,” agrees Nestor.
“Instructors [aren’t being taught] the basics of musicality, technique
or cuing, or basic anatomy and kinesiology. We need more
instructor-training programs that teach these essentials and a return to
the importance of group fitness certifications. So many facilities do
not require it anymore; they just require a ‘certification’ in the
format the instructor is teaching.”

Teach to the people who really need it. Many veteran instructors
agree that teaching beginners is more difficult than teaching more
experienced fitness enthusiasts. If education and professionalism are
waning, this could potentially affect the industry’s drive to recruit,
serve and convert true beginners. In addition, many classes are geared
to more sophisticated clientele. “As an industry, we aim for the
conditioned market and fail the deconditioned market, year after year,”
says DeSimone. “We need to offer more basic and simple programs to
attract the less-conditioned market and continue to engage those
newcomers until physical activity becomes a lifestyle.”

“The expectation for our clubs to have every type of class in a variety
of time slots, combined with the maturation of the . . . participants,
has left us programming for folks who are already serviced,” says Fable.
“We are making classes harder rather than more inclusive. There has been
a renewed emphasis on ‘atmosphere’ to the detriment of substance.”

Provide resources for instructors’ health. IDEA Health &
Fitness Association was initially formed in part as a way to educate
instructors about injury prevention and best practices. Julz Arney, of
Team Arney Fitness Consultants, says the industry has lost touch with
the importance of instructors’ self-care regarding vocal health, hearing
damage and chronic overtraining.

“We have gone completely backwards in this area—to where the majority of
instructors are teaching without a proper microphone, with distorted
sound systems played incredibly loudly, and teaching dozens of classes
per week without proper care or rest,” she says. “This impacts the
member experience, as it makes for substandard classes and a high rate
of burnout for good instructors. If one high-profile club chain would
take the lead on this and create a new standard for the instructor work
environment, and tie this to member satisfaction and retention, the
industry would be forced to follow.”

Ramp up and encourage creativity. “I think group fitness is on
the tail end of it, but I believe the industry got a little stagnant
with programming,” says Isaly. “There were no new programs disrupting
the industry for a while, but I think that’s changing. I’ve also seen a
lot of facilities starting to create exclusive programs that can’t be
available at competing facilities. I think the industry needs to
encourage instructors to use their creative skills and showcase their
programs.”

Open the doors wider to men and older adults. Although the
“evidence” is purely anecdotal, women have been the primary participants
in the group fitness experience. Our experts have seen an increase in
interest among men, thanks in part to classes that focus on athletic
conditioning. Older adults, a separate concern, continue to need
specialized attention and have different needs. It will be important for
the industry to refine its approach to both audiences in order to
maximize interest and results.

Whatever the challenges, there are two things that group fitness is
known for that will help everyone co-create any shifts that need to
happen: positive energy and a dedication to inspiring the world to
fitness.

—Edited by Joy Keller from a 2016 IDEA Personal Trainer East panel discussion.

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